Vikings: Christian Ponder under pressure

How Christian Ponder handles pressure situations will shape the perception of him as an NFL player. Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Another in a periodic series examining the roles of NFC North newcomers.

I hesitate going here, knowing the potential for knee-jerk reactions on what has become one of our most polarizing recent issues. So in résumé style, I'll state the objective of this post from the top: To incorporate some statistical analysis into recent criticism of new Minnesota Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder and then start the process of placing it in context.

Let's try to move past our argument about whether Ponder represented the NFC North's best draft-day decision, the worst, or somewhere in between. Let's also stop trying to play amateur doctor and fretting whether he is injury-prone. Instead, let's review some numbers I commissioned from ESPN Stats & Information to help us work through the on-field segment of Ponder's biography.

There have been some questions about Ponder's arm strength, primarily as a result of an elbow injury that nagged him during his senior season at Florida State. But the harshest and most direct criticism has come from ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who in essence said that Ponder can't adjust under pressure and struggles during the relatively common instance of a play design running awry.

"He plays with a lot of anxiety," Dilfer said last month.

In an effort to flesh out that sentiment, I sought out Ponder's performance in several categories that would seem to reflect performance under (some kind of) pressure: Against the blitz, on third downs, in close games and when outside of the pocket. Off the top, I'll remind you that we've already established that Ponder had a disappointing 2010 season, one attributed to a series of injuries that overshadowed what was a much more productive 2009 campaign.

As you can see from the first chart, Ponder performed better last season when facing four or fewer pass rushers than he did when opponents sent at least one extra rusher. That is not necessarily unusual in the college game, but as we've discussed before, the NFL's best quarterbacks usually thrive against the blitz because they know how to capitalize on the resulting mismatches.

Of course, it takes more than a quarterback to beat the blitz, and it's only fair to point out that not a single one of Ponder's offensive teammates were drafted by the NFL during his tenure in Tallahassee, Fla. But I will say this: If Ponder completes 55.3 percent of his passes against the blitz in the NFL, he won't rank among the top 30 quarterbacks in that category.

ESPN didn't track blitzes against college quarterbacks in 2009, and I would expect Ponder's performance was better that season. Still, the opinions of Dilfer and others were based mostly on his 2010 season.

Regardless, as the next chart shows, Ponder was much better on third downs in 2009 than he was in 2010. He converted nearly 40 percent of his third-down opportunities in both seasons, but his passing was considerably more accurate on those higher-pressure throws during 2009.

Ponder also threw three of his eight total interceptions in 2010 on third down, a sign of forcing the ball under pressure.

We were also able to compare Ponder's passing in the fourth quarter of games where the score was within seven points in either direction. As you see in the numbers below, he was more accurate in 2010 but the sample size wasn't that large in either case.

  • 2010: Ponder completed 14 of 21 attempts with no touchdowns or interceptions.

  • 2009: He completed 35 of 61 passes, including one touchdown and one interception

Finally, as the second chart shows you, Ponder was slightly more efficient last season when throwing from outside of the pocket in 2010. Specifically, on non-designed scrambles, Ponder completed seven of 11 passes in 2010. If Ponder consistently melted under pressure, I would have expected the numbers to be much worst than they were.

So what do these facts and figures tell us? I think we can safely make a few statements.

  1. In order to be a successful NFL quarterback, Ponder is going to need to play well on third downs and against the blitz. He slipped in the former category and was only decent in the latter during 2010.

  2. Many of the negative opinions on Ponder center around his performance in that 2010 season. We'll know soon whether the slip can fairly be attributed to injuries, or if he is another Brian Brohm, the former Louisville quarterback who backtracked notably in his senior year and has been an NFL flop. In Brohm's case, there was no injury history to fall back on. But if Ponder reverts to 2009 form, there are some draft analysts who believe Ponder will be the best quarterback in this draft class.

  3. Dilfer's extended complaint with Ponder's game is difficult to measure. How do we know if Ponder got too anxious during his senior season and pressed the issue, or if the players around him failed on their end?

So I'll make a proposal. Working with ESPN Stats & Information, and assuming the NFL lockout ends by this fall, we'll do our best to track Ponder along these specific measurements. How does he react under pressure? Can he remain accurate under pressure? And how does he fare on so-called "clutch throws?"

As much as we would all like answers now, they're undeniably fleeting. The best we can do is set up some parameters and let them play out over time.

Earlier: The Detroit Lions needed an explosive receiver like Titus Young. The Chicago Bears think defensive tackle Stephen Paea can be a disruptive force, not just a space-eater. The Green Bay Packers passed on a more highly-touted Arizona defensive end/linebacker and ultimately selected the Wildcats' Ricky Elmore in the sixth round. The Bears must decide where to play first-round pick Gabe Carimi, both now and in the future.